John Ceglia, the New York Disco DJ who spun at legendary New York discos: New York-New York, Bonds, Underground, River Club, Studio 54, Ice Palace, Pavilion, The Saint... talks to DiscoMusic.com. Lots of Disco history here including notes on Jim Burgess and Roy Thode.
John Ceglia interview written by Bernard F. Lopez of DiscoMusic.com
The age-old question pops up, what to do on a Friday night? Well, if it's 1977 and you happen to live in Buffalo, New York chances are you went out dancing with your friends at such Disco's as "Fridays & Saturdays," At least that's what famed New York DJ John Ceglia and his friends did during their teenage years.
John says, "I'll never forget walking into the club for the first time and hearing El Coco and going WOW." The music and the crowd reeled him in, but the dancing aspect also got a hold of him when he met his future wife Darlene who was a professional dancer and instructor. Having worked with the dancers in Marty Angelo's "Disco Step By Step" television show she was well up to the task of showing John the basics.
John, Darlene and their friends made it a ritual to go out dancing every weekend to the sounds of local DJ Charlie Anzalone. It is Charlie who John credits for first lighting the DJ fire under him. One of John's friends had turntables and a mixer and they would practice and hone their skills. In due time he realized he had a knack for making smooth blends and transitions and felt that he was capable enough to actually DJ at a club.
Asking for the Job
It's early 1978 and Ceglia is only seventeen and still a senior in high school, but one day while riding home on the bus he decides to get off early and visit a local Disco called "Sergeant Peppers." Without any appointment or any professional DJ experience he asks to speak with the owner (Leonard Casola) about spinning at the club. After a brief conversation the owner tells John that he starts that weekend at $20.00 a night. Whether it was "balls" or luck, John was in and on his way to becoming a world class DJ in his hometown of Buffalo and later in New York City.
Still spinning in Buffalo at such clubs as 747 and Friday & Saturdays, John went to New York City in July of 1978 to check out the club scene and couldn't believe the experience. It was so different from his native Buffalo. He visited such clubs as Ice Palace & 57 with Howard Merrit and Frank Houlihan; Infinity with Jim Burgess playing... As he says, "I was blown away by the mastery the DJ had over the people. As wonderful as it was in Buffalo and as receptive as people back in 1978 were to Disco music-New York City was on a different level. It was an amazing feeling to be in a room and just feel the excitement-it was mind-blowing." Ceglia recalls hearing songs and artists he had never heard before like Patrick Juvet over at Ice Palace and the "people going off to it." He goes on to explain, "the people there were so in tune with what was happening, each blend, being attentive... You know it was like they wanted to go on a journey with the disc jockey... There was this amazing oneness and trust and it was a very unique feeling."
The Jim Burgess Experience
Having grown up on R & B and the Motown sound he was surprised to hear Jim Burgess at Infinity play Stevie Wonder's "I Wish." "When you hear a song like that and see the way they respond to it at Infinity it was pretty neat." John Ceglia thought most people had forgotten about stuff like this and here it was being played at a big New York club with scores of dancers loving it. It validated Ceglia's musical tastes and proved that there was a place for him to go were the crowd would be with him so to speak or as he states "here's a place where I could fit in." He decided then and there that New York City was what he wanted to shoot for. "I have to get into the city and play some of these clubs." I asked John if he felt intimidated and he replies "I was. Even when I first moved here I was confident in my ability, but New York is a scary place... I found out how scary after I lived here a while and saw a disc jockey who was having a really bad night and they were throwing ashtrays and mini Budweiser cans at him. He moved to San Francisco cause he couldn't get a night after that."
Mean Alice Comes A Knockin'
After his brief trip to New York, John Ceglia went back to Buffalo and spun at other clubs including Mulligan's that specialized in a more funk-oriented sound. During 1979 Darlene and her cousin were visiting "Mean Alices" which was one of the gay clubs in the area. She mentioned to John that he should consider playing there because they would appreciate his music and mixing style. He went down and auditioned and started playing Friday and Saturday nights there. John says "it was the closest thing to New York from an energy standpoint... you could get away with more... they were more in tune with the blends..." John became more daring in his mixing style now that he had an audience that appreciated it. John states, "in a straight club you might have people that would walk off the floor if you didn't hit your mark, but in this club they would stare you down, put their hands on their hips, slam their drink down and look at you. On the other hand, when you did it right the charge and the excitement you got out of the room was more too." It's what motivated John to keep trying.
Billboard Disco Forum & Michael Ellis
Later in 1979 Marty Angelo of the first Disco television show "Disco Step By Step" organized what was to go down in history as the world's "largest disco" attended by as many as 14,000 paying guests. The event was to feature world class Disco artists such as Gloria Gaynor, The Trammps, Edna Holt... and Disco DJ's from across the US and Canada such as Bobby "DJ" Guttadaro from New York, Mike Lewis from Studio One in LA and Wally MacDonald of Toronto. It is for this prestigious event that thirty of his peer's chose John Ceglia to represent Buffalo.
In 1980 John decided that he wanted to get out of Buffalo. He states " I didn't feel like there was anything else here, I played at all the area clubs and wanted to take it to the next step and I couldn't figure out how I'm going to do this." John wasn't sure if he wanted to go to New York or Los Angeles. In February of 1980 Billboard held it's annual Disco Forum/Convention in Los Angeles and John decided to head over to develop contacts within the industry to make his move. Armed with resumes and cassettes John met Ray Caviano (RFC/Warner), Mark Murphy (Prelude), Danny Glass (SAM) and DJs such as Jim Burgess and Roy Thode and finally Michael Ellis (PD of New York's WKTU radio) the person who would become responsible for getting him to New York. John asked if he wouldn't mind taking his resume and tape and Ellis said that he was also originally from Buffalo and from that point they hit it off and spoke further.
Ceglia describes Michael Ellis as "a very level headed person... He wasn't caught up in the whole party scene of the Disco era. He loved the music and everything and saw that I was young and he had to try and make sure I didn't get mixed up with the wrong crowd. He was looking out for me and would introduce me to those who he thought could benefit my career." The trip went well and John had made excellent contacts as well as life-long friends. He later was invited by Billboard's Bill Wardlow to be on the "Mixing Techniques Panel at the next Billboard Disco Forum in New York later that year along with Bobby Viteritti, Mike Lewis, Jim Burgess and others.
Ceglia's First New York Club
A little after the second Disco Forum Mike Ellis calls John Ceglia to say that he has gotten him the first audition slot for a four night a week opening at a major club in New York City called New York-New York. It turns out that the owners, John Addisson and Maurice Brahams were set to open another club called Bonds after the men's clothing store it replaced in Times Square. They wanted to take head DJ Raul Rodriguez from New York-New York over to the new Bonds. John was taken by surprise and worked his usual night at Mean Alice's till 4am and then hopped on a train to New York with some records.
Ceglia Brings Down the House
John arrived at New York-New York for his audition at around 9 PM Sunday night and was greeted in the DJ booth by about ten onlookers including the owners, Raul Rodriguez and the light-man Richard Spala. John was scheduled to spin for about twenty minutes and then they would move on to the next DJ. However as he was doing his thing John takes a leap of faith, " I had something I had cooked up that I wanted to do that was one of my trademark bring-down-the-house numbers. I said to myself, do I want to do this for an empty room or if I don't do this and they don't hear it am I not going to get the job?" Well, John did a few blends and then he did it! A half-hour goes by and no one comes up. An hour still no one is stopping him. Finally after auditioning for an hour and a half Raul comes over and John asks, "Isn't someone else supposed to come over?" Raul replies "yeah, I sent them home-you start on Wednesday."
Well, I was intrigued so I asked Ceglia what was this little bring-down-the-house number? John said, "It was a mix from "If There's Love" by Amant into "Could This Be Magic" by Donna Summer where I overlay the whole slow intro over the percussion break and every time she sings the percussion plays right on top of her vocals–almost identical." John chides, "I guess they liked it!"
Taking a Bite Out of the Big Apple
Ceglia calls Ellis and tells him that he got hired and starts that Wednesday, but has no idea what he will do since he doesn't even have an apartment or any long-term plans. Ellis tells John not to worry that he can stay with him at his Tudor City place for a month until he can get his own apartment. John hurries back to Buffalo and returns to New York later that week with boxes of records, one suitcase and no money to begin his new life in the Big Apple at the age of nineteen.
River Club One Night Stand invite featuring DJ John Ceglia.
Since he was making a lousy $40 a night at Mean Alice's one would think that a major New York club would pay more right? Well, it turns out they were going to give John $50 for each weeknight (Mon, Tues and Wed) and $100 for weekends (Sat). This was his foot in the door so he took it and was able to get his pay bumped up over the next few months. I asked if he felt comfortable at his new gig in New York and he says, "I felt like I was meant to be there."
Judy Weinstein and For The Record
It's June of 1980 and now that he's in New York, Ceglia's networking skills were paying off handsomely. Within days he started talking with all the contacts he had made earlier like Jim Burgess. In fact Jim was the one who took John to see Judy Weinstein at "For the Record" which was one of the premiere record pools in New York. He was soon admitted into the pool based on Jim's recommendation and assigned bin #14. Jim's influence along with Mike Ellis' as well as being the house DJ at New York-New York really opened doors early in his career.
John stayed at New York-New York for about a year, but also did spots at other clubs in and around the city. One such club was Ice Palace in Fire Island were he was invited to play at the behest of the late Roy Thode who had heard John do a unique blend at the Billboard Disco Convention. Other clubs included Bonds where John would cover for Raul Rodriguez on his nights off. In addition the late "Chief Rocker" Frankie Crocker of WBLS radio invited John Ceglia to do several Friday night non-stop mix parties which John recorded on reel-to-reel in Jimmy Burgess' living room.
Studio 54 Goes Underground
A short time later the owners of the infamous Studio 54, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager were convicted of tax evasion and had their establishment closed down. A new club at 860 Broadway called The Underground opened up to pick up the slack catering to a Studio crowd on weeknights and an all men's tea on Sundays. One of the owners of The Underground, New York-New York and Bonds was Maurice Brahams. Marurice was one of the guys Steve Rubell gave to the FBI for paying laborers under the table in exchange for a shorter sentence. Maurice refused to give names of workers he hired for cash and did time in prison for keeping it to himself. At the time Jim Burgess, Robbie Leslie, Richie Rivera and Roy Thode all worked at The Underground and by January of 1981 John Ceglia also joined them by doing two nights a month seeing as they had as many as six DJ's rotating the few nights the club was open.
12 West Now The River Club
Later in 1981 John Ceglia decides he wants to go where the crowd is most receptive and decides to make a move to 12 West/River Club. He knew he could get away with funkier stuff at the River club. I asked John what's the difference and he replied, "it's from seeing the room and seeing the reaction from certain things. I knew at The River Club I could get away with funkier stuff than the regular core of jocks, but I also liked where their head was in the uptempo stuff. I liked knowing how you can pull out and rotate classics and get great responses cause there was so many things to pull from week in and week out. You could mix in various classics with the newer stuff and still razzle dazzle them and keep them guessing, but still have them have a ball."
Other jocks at The River Club were Robbie Leslie, Michael Fearman, Jim Evangelista, Sharon White, Shawn Buchanon and Jim Burgess before he made his move to The Saint. John remained there for three years and played with many acts such as Gino Soccio Review and Grace Jones.
Seeing as John had worked with many staples of the Disco DJ world I asked for his take on the following individuals:
Jim Burgess: "A really, really creative and talented guy-a very eccentric guy. He was in the most enviable of positions cause if he hadn't already played at all the big clubs, he was working at the one's he hadn't at the time. Of all the remixers, even John Luongo who I love, I loved the sound Jimmy used to get on his remixes. He had the best of both worlds. He gave me the best piece of advice from a DJ standpoint, he told me to throw away my BPM book... your mixes will become more musical. You'll be looking to match things that make musical sense as opposed to just matching beats. It made me a better disc jockey. We became very good friends" Sadly Jim passed away in the late 1980s from an HIV related illness.
Raul Rodriguez: "Raul was one of the nicest people I have ever met in the business, responsible for hiring me as resident at New York-New York and giving me my opportunity to move to New York City. He was very involved with Disconet and Mike Wilkinson doing such remixes as Abba's "Lay All your Love." He was a very honorable guy and the guy who basically made the decision to hire me so I owe him a great deal. I have a lot of respect for Raul"
Howard Merritt: "Was playing at Ice Palace-he was the first New York jock I heard and holds a special place. He was the first person I ever saw bring a room to that type of excitement and lit the flame. Later in my career he would come to hear me spin and that was a thrill."
Robbie Leslie: "He was another wonderful guy. Robbie is a great programmer. He knew what records to play next. He knew how to take a room and he's still doing it, and I always admired his selection. He turned me on to a lot of cool music as Jim Burgess did.
Veteran DJ's Leaving Scene
In 1981 Jim Burgess was at The Saint and decided to retire from spinning to pursue of all things a singing career-opera to be more exact. John Ceglia recalls that Jim was a Wagnerian tenor and trained under Andre Previn when he was younger. Jim was really into classical music so much that he would take a movie soundtrack or classical piece to begin the famous 12-14 hour theme parties, a habit that John picked up as well.
With the music changing and many veteran DJ's leaving I asked John if he was feeling fed up or burned out and he replies, "I was almost at that point. Because of the twelve hour nights... it's a grueling thing... it's a rewarding thing to like at 6:30 am have more people than the club can legally handle and just stop, have the record fade out and just have the people stand there and give you an encore for three minutes. Then you take them somewhere else and that's where the sleaze trip comes in. It was fun and very challenging, but it would take you over a week to recover sometimes from a night like that." He goes on to explain that it was very difficult to do any weeknight gigs to supplement his income and, "You couldn't go and do the same set next Saturday even at a different club. That's the type of pressure I had. They (the crowd) were very tough"
Moving over to Fire Island, which was New York's summer spot John tells how there were two beaches that were popular for Disco, The Pines and Cherry Grove where the Ice Palace was located. The late Roy Thode who committed suicide in May of 1982 worked at The Ice Palace and even hired John to spin there back in 1980. John goes on to explain that even though more people lived in the Pines they only went to the Ice Palace on Friday and Saturday nights. Another club called The Pavilion in the Pines usually only had about 150 people till 4 am and John got hired there a few days after Roy's death. John was told on his first night that he would be done by 4 am, but when that time came there was no room to move. 6 am no room to move-7, 8, 9 am... John played until almost one o'clock the next afternoon. From then on the crowd shifted from Ice Palace to The Pavilion and it has been that way ever since. He says that was one of his most memorable summers playing River Club during the week and Saturdays in the Pines at The Pavilion.
Ceglia Plays Studio 54
The next year is when he started to notice the music changing which was before house began getting popular. He explains, "the music was getting real edge-ee and weird, a lot of the good big clubs were closing and it was going way, way underground and there weren't a lot of great places to work. That's when it started happening-the end of 1983 into '84. 1984 is when I stopped. Also in 1982 is when I played Thursdays and Sundays at Studio (54). It had reopened with Mark Flaschman and John Blair who's still doing parties in New York and used to do Sunday tea at Underground."
A Career Change
Going back to Fire Island, while John is at Pavilion in the Pines he meets a woman who worked in a recording studio. John mentions that he really wants to get into studio work and the woman explains that it is not music, but sound production for film and television. Nonetheless she tells him to come down and speak to the owner of the studio which he did and was promptly hired. They trained him to be an engineer on their staff and by December of 1984 he was doing sessions and out of the club life entirely. He has been doing it ever since. Seven years in New York, music editor for HBO/Cinemax, and then for nine years back in his hometown of Buffalo where he currently lives with his wife and child.
While John was spinning in New York his wife was busy fulfilling her dream as a dancer with the likes of Lee Theodore and performing on Broadway in "Kiss Me Kate." They married in 1983 feeling that they would always go back home to Buffalo once their hard work was done. He says that he couldn't have been a good dad with that kind of lifestyle and he wanted a better life for his family and also to give back to their hometown. He tells of a New Years celebration in 1981 where he turns to his wife and said, "You know, I don't want to do this when I'm forty, when I'm thirty. And this was when I was about to embark on my best year and a half as a disc jockey, but I knew even then when I was just twenty-one years old that this was nothing that I wanted to be in for any amount of time. I was hoping to do what Jimmy (Burgess) did-I wanted to get into the recording studio and I wanted to do remixes. If I had gotten to New York at the age of nineteen in 1977 I think that that may have turned out differently."
John talks about what may have been a missed opportunity for him when his friend Mike Ellis offered him a chance to create some exclusive mixes for WKTU radio. Only problem was that WKTU wanted to pick the songs, which were of the up, and coming rap variety, which he wasn't into. He wanted to pick the songs, but they said no so he declined and then they asked John "Jellybean" Benitez who accepted. Benitez who was spinning at The Funhouse later went on to become one of the most prolific and sought after remixers of the 1980's.John wonders if he should have edited that Grand Master Flash track for WKTU, but has no real regrets.
I asked John if he ever had second thoughts about leaving the club scene for studio work and he replies, "I still miss that connection with the crowd, the rush-that great feeling when you're doing a long blend you know the roof is coming off and it's so exciting. I miss that energy, but I do think I made the right choice. I talk with the jocks that are still doing it today and they tell me the kind of dinero they're pulling down and maybe I have second thoughts-you know three grand a night..." He credits his blending abilities behind the turntables for helping him become a better music editor.
I asked if he ever did any guest appearance after his retirement from spinning and answers says no. He does explain how he would get flown out to other cities to play. The most notable was playing a weekend at Salvation in Miami during his DJ days with Jim Burgess. In fact John says that Jim lived with he and his wife for a while after his retirement. They both played Good Friday, 1982 at River Club as well. The only appearance he has done is for Marty Angelo's annual "Disco Reunion" in Buffalo which he will do again in June of 2002.
A Part Of Music History?
In closing I asked John Ceglia what he felt about his role in Disco dance music history and he states, "I knew Disco had it's place in history like it or not even with all the negative stuff that was said about it... It's looked back on better now when you say the word 'Disco' than it was back in 1980. I knew I was part of that, but I guess I never really thought about that. I worked at the most famous club in the world-Studio 54. A lot of people confuse the most famous club with the best party and I don't think that even when it was Steve and Ian's place... I still think you could have gone to Infinity or 12 West and there was probably a better party going on. Studio was still a fun place and it was Studio. I guess I kind of knew, but when that book Last Night A DJ Saved My Life came out I read through it and they erased me from history. My name wasn't even in there once even with all the clubs I worked at and there was very little mention of places like the Underground, River Club... They were more into the R & B clubs like the Frankie Knuckles, Garage, Loft... They missed a whole huge part of it... The clubs that I was working at in the early eighties were happening... I was always a more inclusive Disco person and I liked to go to the Garage and hear Larry sometimes. I needed to hear that funkier stuff sometimes. I thought it was just the fullness of the Disco experience that you could go and hear me one night and Larry one night or this person or that and you were going to get a different experience. In New York you were getting many different trips."
Before we wrap things up, here's an interesting quote from Tony Furnari & Frank Reardon of "Music Box."
...the Underground shone supreme with their DJ, John Ceglia, who to quote a pun, had his finger on what was happening! John, former roomie of Jim Burgess, must have picked up some valuable pointers from his renowned roommate-his selection of material and his prowess at the tunrtable was undeniable. It's very clear to us that John and Robbie Leslie (and their ilk) are the ones to watch!
There you have it folks. I would like to thank John Ceglia for taking time to share his experiences with everyone. It was a blast getting to hear first hand accounts of New York's Disco days.
To wrap things up, here is a list of John Ceglia's 20 most influential artists during his DJ career and the song(s) that he felt had the most impact on his spinning.
John Ceglia's Top 20 Artists
- Stevie Wonder: "Master Blaster"/"All I Do"/"That Girl"/"Do I Do" (plus some of his early 70's classic stuff and as he states, "My all time favorite artist")
- Jackie Moore: "This Time Baby" (John's all time biggest club record and one that usually marked the start of the high energy phase for dancers)
- Boris Midney: (Just about everything)
- Barry White: "You're My First, Last My Everything"/ "Can't Get Enough"/"You're So Good You're Bad"
- Ashford & Simpson: (Their body of work and "The Boss" LP)
- Quincy Jones: "Betcha' Wouldn't Hurt Me"/"Somethin' Special"/ "Razamatazz"
- Alec Costandinos: "Romeo & Juliet"/"I've Found Love"... LPs
- Cerrone: "Give Me Love" (Supernature LP)
- Georgio: "E=MC2"LP/"From Here To Eternity" LP
- Gamble & Huff: (Everything they touched turned to gold)
- El Coco: "Cocomotion" (first record I ever heard in a club)
- First Choice: (practically anything...)
- Voyage: (First two LP's)
- Donna Summer: "MacArthur Park Suite"/"Could This Be Magic," "Working The Midnight Shift/Now I Need You"
- The Trammps: "Where The Happy People Go"/"Hooked For Life"...
- Gregg Diamond: "Chains"/"Cream"/"Risky Changes"/"Dance Little Dreamer"/"Hot Butterfly"
- Rufus & Chaka Khan: "Masterjam"LP ("Do You Love What You Feel"...)
- Al Green: "Still In Love With You"/"Let's Stay Together," "Call Me"/"Love & Happiness"...
- Change: "Searchin'" LP
- Venus Dodson: "Night Rider" (one of John's favorite Jim Burgess mixes)
- Alton McClain & Destiny: "Crazy Love" (another of John's favorite Jim Burgess mixes)
Written by Bernard F. Lopez of DiscoMusic.com (March 15, 2002)
Copyright © 2002 by Bernard F. Lopez
All rights reserved